Road to Redemption
Datuk Michelle Yeoh is back in a wuxia flick in John Woo’s Reign Of Assassins as a hired killer determined to erase her bloodstained past.
WITH John Woo’s name being highlighted on the movie poster, one would have easily mistaken Reign Of Assassins as the latest cinematic effort by the renowned director.
Indeed, the Chinese wuxia (martial arts) film was branded by many as a John Woo film, when Woo and company did the promotional circuit for the film recently.
That was why at the beginning of this interview, the director was quick to point out that he was the producer who “just sat behind, kept my mouth shut, watched and enjoyed” during the shooting of the movie.
Instead, he credited Taiwanese writer/director Su Chao-pin with helming what the Chinese critics called the best wuxia work after Ang Lee’s groundbreaking, Oscarwinning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a decade ago.
Woo’s first martial arts production boasts a stellar international cast comprising the most soughtafter names in today’s Hong Kong cinema: our very own Datuk Michelle Yeoh, the award-winning Wang Xueqi of China, South Korean heartthrob Jung Woo-sung, Taiwanese darlings Barbie Hsu and Kelly Lin and hunky Hong Kong actor Shawn Yue. Even Woo’s daughter Angeles, 33, has a part in the movie.
Before you write it off as just another kung fu flick, Woo, 64, wants you to know that Reign Of Assassins is a wuxia film with a heart.
Underneath the dazzling display of sword-play and fanciful weapons – which included a bendable sword, a magical rope, powerful silver chopsticks and flying needles – is a love story, a woman’s path to redemption laced with face makeover, treasure chase and high suspense that can rival a spy flick. Wait a minute, face makeover? Face/Off, anyone? “It was Su’s idea. Maybe he’s inspired by Face/Off,” said Woo of his 1997 hit starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. Though both films share the appearance-altering plot, the act carries different significance in the two films.
Face/Off is about how you have to turn into someone in order to beat him. It’s more about the battle between good and evil.
“In Reign Of Assassins, the protagonist does it because she wants to leave behind her past and get a new life,” said Woo at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore last week.
The movie sees former assassin Xi Yu (Lin) getting a new face and a new identity to become an ordinary cloth seller and embark on a new life. A post-surgery Xi Yu (Yeoh) tries to adjust to her new peaceful life as she falls in love with a messenger boy called Ah Sheng (Jung), only to see her dark past catching up with her.
Xi Yu doesn’t have a choice but to face associates from her past: the Wheel King (Wang) and his assassin squad consisting of Lei Bin (Yue), Zhan Qing (Hsu) and the Magician (Leon Dai).
When Woo read the script Su wrote three years ago, he was intrigued by how different it was from the conventional wuxia offerings.
“ Reign Of Assassins is unique as it focuses on human nature and emotions. Few wuxia and action films touched on that in the past, as films of such genre were meant to be fast-paced and entertaining.
“There was a great love story and it was the very first time a wuxia film is told from a female perspective. That’s what I’ve been looking for, for many years.
“I always believe a good action movie should have nice drama and human elements. The action should complement the drama. In Reign Of Assassins, the depiction of relationships between the characters and the fight scenes make a great combo,” he explained. Instead of directing the film himself, he entrusted Su with the task. If you look at the latter’s resume, it’s not hard to understand why.
Su is one of the most promising screenwriters-turned-filmmakers in recent years.
After impressing critics with his original scripts for The Cabbie, Double Vision and Going Home (a segment directed by Peter Chan Hosun in Three), he turned to directing and came up with Silk, the sci-fi supernatural film that garnered nominations, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Golden Horse Awards in 2006.
“I watched Silk and I found him to be a very gifted filmmaker, which was why I lent my full support to him and suggested he direct the film himself. In that way, it helped retain the original elements of the story,” said Woo.
Throughout the interview, the auteur, noted for his string of classics that changed the face of Hong Kong action cinema – among them
Gifted Su Chao-pin
A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled, which all starred Chow Yun-fat – reiterated that he was merely playing an assisting role to Su and did not interfere with the creative process.
“I have a relatively richer experience in making action films. This is Su’s first attempt at a big-scaled actioner. So I assisted him in the technical aspects,” he said.
For the action scenes, Woo roped in Stephen Tung, the multiple-award-winning action choreographer of Purple Storm (1999), the Jackie Chan-starrer The Accidental Spy (2001) and last year’s period action drama Bodyguards And Assassins.
The spectacular fight scenes have sent early reviewers ooh-ing and ah-ing and thus, the film has earned a comparison to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
But Woo stated that there was a difference between the two films.
“I don’t want elaborate action. Before we started shooting, we all agreed that we should make it natural and beautiful.
“I want the fights to be realistic enough to move the audience. I want it to come with feelings and impact. At the same time, I want it to look good. Now that’s a great challenge.
“We had never thought of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when we shot Reign Of Assassins. It’s a brilliant film. I have a lot of respect for Ang Lee, both as a friend and as a filmmaker. His version of wuxia was very romantic and the film was a classic.
“For Reign Of Assassins, we tried to avoid the over-the-top, flying-inthe air kind of stunts. We aimed to be realistic, not just in the fights, but also in the characters’ expression of the feelings. We want it to look like it’s from the bottom of their hearts,” he said.
“Although both films star Yeoh, I personally think she does it better here than in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as she is the central character,” he said.
“When we read the script, it seemed like it’s written for her. She’s our first choice and we’d never thought of anybody else.”
Angeles’ screen debut
While veteran A-listers like Yeoh and Wang commanded attention in the film, a relatively unknown girl made her acting debut in Reign Of Assassins.
She is no ordinary newcomer though. She is Woo’s daughter Angeles, an aspiring filmmaker who took on a role as an assassin.
Seeing his daughter on the set was, of course, different from directing other actors in a film.
Woo talked about the anxiety he felt as a father watching his daughter doing the dangerous stunts: “I treated her like other cast members. But as a father, it’s hard not to worry about certain things. It was, after all, her first time.
“I was especially nervous when she was required to do some wire work,” he said, adding that it was good training for Angeles.
In his illustrious career of 37 years, Woo is one of the few Hong Kong directors who have made it in Hollywood with box-office hits like Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II, with the latter being the highestgrossing film of 2000.
While his later Hollywood films Windtalkers and Paycheck failed to live up to the success of Face/Off, Woo was grateful for the exposure in Tinseltown and in recent years turned his eyes to the new filming hub of China.
In 2008, he made a triumphant return to Chinese cinema with Red Cliff, a star-studded epic adapted from the historical text Records Of Three Kingdoms.
“I’ve spent 16 years in Hollywood and had so many good experiences in between. Five years ago I decided that it’s about time that I brought back what I’ve learnt back to Asia.
“There is a lot of young talent in China who have great passion in filmmaking.
“I hope to make more good movies, bring the best of both worlds together, so that we understand each other more,” said Woo.
More recently, his effort was acknowledged by the jury of the Venice Film Festival led by Quentin
Tarantino, who awarded him the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement last month.
The humble Woo quipped that it was a bit too early for him to receive the award, because “I still have hair.” Nevertheless, he views it as a form of motivation to come up with better films in the future.
“It’s a gesture of support and care and it would definitely encourage me to do more films in the future.
“My dream film has not arrived yet. When I look back, I find that every film of mine has flaws. So I would definitely keep going,” he vowed.
Maybe that means we would not have to wait long to see a John Woo wuxia film, complete with his trademarks.
“I have my own martial arts film to make, with flying doves, romance and brotherhood ( laughs).
“I would love to pay tribute to King Hu, Chang Cheh and Akira Kurosawa.
“I am saving the good things for myself ( laughs) and I hope Su can help me then,” he said. Reign Of Assassins opens in Malaysian cinemas on Oct 14.
Team work: (from left) Producer John Woo, actress Datuk Michelle Yeoh and director Su Chao-pin
promoting ReignOfAssassins in Singapore.